Stolby Nature Reserve: Animals!

One of the coolest things about Stolby was the abundant wildlife; there were so many different insects, birds, mammals found along the trails. Here’s what we found on our hikes in July:


The purple trail takes you pretty far into the reserve, so it’s not surprising that’s where we saw wolves, a six-pack to be exact (no, really, not kidding and yes, pun intended). There’s no picture here because a) I wasn’t fast enough and b) I took me a few seconds to realize the dog-like creatures in front of us were wolves. We simply rounded a bend in the trail and suddenly there appeared to be five german shepards 20 feet in front of us. My first thought was “who left their dogs out hereeeooh MY GOD THESE AREN’T DOGS.” because as I scanned left, I noticed a massive black animal at the front of their pack. They paused, sniffed the air, and then they loped off into the bushes. Stoytcho apparently spent the three seconds ouf our encounter desperately searching for a nearby stick, so yay, survival skills.


There are tons of Siberian chipmunks (Eutamias sibiricus) along the paved trail into the park because people feed them. I can’t comment on the ecological stability of this, but can say that the Russians know how to feed their animals. Everyone brings sunflower or other seeds for them, and any attempts to give them bread are met with strange looks. So at least the chipmunks won’t get diabetes. If you bring your own packet of seeds, you can get the chipmunks to eat out of your hand.

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Strangely, squirrels are much rarer than the chipmunks. We encountered this red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) along the paved trail into the park. It was pretty skiddish, though it feasted on the same sunflower seed bounty that its chipmunk cousins loved.




We’re not well versed in birds, though we did recognize when we stumbled too close to a hawk or eagle nest and the thing just wouldn’t shut up. If you visit Stolby, though, the most common bird you’ll see is the great tit (Parus major). It’s a pretty yellow and gray bird that also partakes in the bounty of seeds visitors bring. If it’s early summer, you might also see a fun show of adolescent birds demanding to be fed by their parents, despite the fact that they can already fly.



We saw a snake! Tally one to our sightings of snakes on the trip so far (this number is around a woeful 3 or 4). This one was crossing the paved path on the way into the park. My tentative guess on the species would be Elaphe dione, the Steppe ratsnake, according to a nature guide of animals in Transbaikalia.


Biting Bugs

It’s summer and the biting bugs are definitely abundant. Besides mosquitoes, two things to watch out for are horseflies and ticks. The horseflies have bites that hurt like hell, while the ticks here can transmit some kind of encephelitis. Yay.

We found two ticks in four days of hikes, so they’re pretty common. The first was on Stoytcho’s clothing while hiking the (blue?) loop trail to all of the climbing rocks. The second was on me. We climbed part of Manskaya Stenka on the purple trail and on the way back down, while clinging to tree roots I felt a tickle on my belly. I freed one hand and pulled my shirt up to find a tick crawling its way across my stomach. Fighting the frantic urge to flail, I kept one hand on the tree root and used the other to flick it off and FAR away.

So yeah, watch out for ticks.


Other (more fun) bugs

There are a plethora of bugs in Stolby that don’t bite and can be downright lovely. You’ll encounter a lot of beetles on your hikes, with the largest and most common being black-colored scarabs that shimmer iridescent blue in the sunlight:



Then there are a variety of ants, including the near-universal golden carpenter ant and ‘farmer’ ants that tend to their flocks of aphids:


I had no idea what these insects were–they’re probably some kind of nymph and not the mature adult–but they would cluster together on railings along the trail. When disturbed, they would shiver and scatter in unison:


Here’s a cute little ladybug sporting reverse colors:


And lastly, snaaaaails!



Stolby Nature Resere: Plants


Siberia in summer contradicts every imagined image conjured up by the word. Devoid of ice and snow, the summer Siberian landscape clothes herself in emerald hues dotted with flecks of whites, reds, purples, and pinks from flowers and berries. Here are some of the beautiful summer plants we encountered on our hikes in Stolby:

A cluster of Campanula flower.
An unknown flower; though the flower cluster reminds me of a clover, the leaves are totally different. The flowers are long and thin, so they’re not slipperwort. They’re also not the correct shape to be foxglove or monkshood.
A cluster of monkshood/Wolf’s Bane (Aconitum) flowers.
Another unknown flower, although from the shape it could be a wild orchid.
Two small Campanula or Adenophora flowers, after a rain.
A lone dew-dipped cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) hangs from its stem.
The autumn colors of this plant pop against the background of green summer foliage.
Small, ever dainty forget-me-nots (Myosotis imitata).
A bee pollinates elderberry flowers (Sambucus sp.)
A small, bell-shaped flower, perhaps another Campanula.
A rather stunning flower, though unknown. Maybe a type of carnation or Dianthus sp.?
A blueberry (Vaccinium)peeks out from the bush.
Flowers of Bupleurum longiradiatum, small perennial shrub whose cousin Bupleurum longifolium is popularly known as an ornamental.
A yellow jewelweed/touch-me-not/balsam (Impatiens noli-tangere) flower.
These dewspun leaves illustrate how jewelweed got its name.
A small flower, possibly Geum aleppicum (Yellow Avens).
A wild thistle (Synurus deltoides) with flowers in bloom.
The unopened puffballs of wild thistle flowers (Synurus deltoides).

Taipei Natural Parks

A translucent white mushroom grows from a mossy branch, surrounded by small black earth tongues (Geoglossaceae).

One unexpected part of Taiwan has been its natural beauty, for beyond Taipei lie vast parks that make up around ten percent of the island’s landmass. From thick jungles to sweeping shorelines, Taiwan’s natural beauty is both unexpected and unexpectedly easy to reach, thanks to the extensive public transit system. Though we did not stray far beyond Taipei, we managed to visit two different parks in our time there. Here’s our experience at each:

Yehliu Geopark

People crowd the paved walkways in Yehliu Geopark.

People. So many people. This park is easy to get to by bus from Taipei and gets incredibly packed, so show up early or on a day most people have work. There isn’t much hiking to do around here, but the guided walk out to the peninsula takes you past fantastical stone formations in the shape of candles, mushrooms, and human heads. The top of the hill has a lovely view of the park and the surrounding sea, but take care in the path you choose: some paths down lead to barricaded areas, and the less trod are incredibly slippery and overgrown.

“The Octopus” stone formation, besides some “candle” stone formations. All of the formations are formed naturally by erosion, without the touch of human hands.
A life ring at the park. This area is prone to rogue waves during monsoon season.
People wandering among the rock formations.
DON’T BE THIS GUY: human touch speeds the eroding process and does damage.
Smalls succulent plants grow in a dirt-filled hole on one of the rock formations.
Waves breaky on the rocky shoreline at the end of the peninsula.
A poorly-kept, slippery path to nowhere.
A dew-dropped ladybug.
People stand on a bridge over rock formations in the park.

Mt. Qixing

The slippery, stair-filled path up to the peak of Mt. Qixing.

Also accessible by bus from Taipei, this is where you go for a real hike. Mt. Qixing Park has dozens of trails that would take days to hike, and the tropical weather of Taiwan nurtures thick forests full of insects, lizards, and small rodents. Most hiking trails here are stone and involve an insane amount of stairs, so bring walking sticks and watch your step in the slippery rain. The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring Bath is open to the public and is a great place to soak after a hike, but has limited hours (see below) and is closed on the last Monday of each month. The foot bath in front of it is always open, though, so you can always soak your feet alongside a dozen other weary hikers.

A mysterious round structure hides in the foliage.
A tree lizard, possibly from the genus Japalura.
A dew-jeweled caterpillar (probably of Lemyra) makes its away across the edge of a bench.
A stream flows between an ocean of grasses and shrubs.
A small, decorated land snail (I’m guessing Aegista mackensii) inches by.
The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring working hours. Guess what day we were here! (It was the last Monday of the month. Sad times).
We soak our feet with other hikers.
A waterfall at the end of our hike.
An ant-mimic jumping spider (Salticidae, probably a female of Myrmarachne sp.).

Trying (and failing) to hike Son Tra Mountain

A Buddhist temple and Da Nang’s skyline seen through the midday haze from Son Tra Mountain.

After the amazing nature we experienced in Indonesia, we were ready to tackle Vietnam’s hiking trails. Unfortunately information online was sparse and having not yet fully internalized how poorly the hike from Tumpang to Bromo unfolded, I figured we could just go out to a place, pick up a dirt path, and follow it in and out. There was mention online of biking trails on Son Tra Mountain, which lies on a peninsula just north of Da Nang and wouldn’t be too far from civilization. So one morning we packed our bags and caught a taxi out there to try hiking around the mountain.

Signs along the road on Son Tra Mountain. This shadeless path seems to be the only path for cars, bikes, and the unfortunate person who wants to walk.


Cars and motorbikes speed past us as we hike up the road.

This hike was a failure, though not in its objectives. We were able to hike up the mountain and see some of Vietnam’s natural beauty. No, where this hike failed was in that it was utterly miserable for two reasons: lack of information made it impossible to find a walking trail and it was swelteringly hot. When we arrived at our destination, we asked the staff at the InterContinental Hotel about hiking trails and though they spoke English, they didn’t seem to understand the hiking part. They directed us to the vehicle road leading up the mountain. This shadeless pavement path was our trail for the hike and the noontime tropical sun beati down on us. The sunblock we applied simply dissolved in our sweat and we burned. It was not a fun hike.

Stoytcho rests in the shade of a tree.
The sun shines through the tree’s leaves. We never get full respite from the sun.

We realized an hour in that we weren’t going to make it to the top of the mountain and picked a smaller, nearer peak as our destination. It still took us another hour and a half to reach this peak and at the top we collapsed in the shade of a tree, panting and gulping down water. From here we could make out Da Nang’s skyscrapers in the midday haze and see the sparkling blue water along the shoreline below. “We should’ve gone swimming today,” we agreed as we hiked back down the mountain, passed by whizzing cars and passing vehicle debris.

The shoreline of the peninsula, with its alluring aqua waters. Should’ve gone swimming.
Incense sticks beside a pile of motorbike debris, probably indicating an accident where someone died. 

For those of you who found your way here because you’re looking for a hike in Da Nang, don’t do this one because it’s hot and just not worth it unless you have a motorbike or bicycle. For those of you reading along on our travels, this is a good moment to enjoy the fact you’re at your computer and not thousands of miles away hiking, sweating, and burning in the tropical sun. For us, this experience is a reminder to know there’s a trail before going. While traveling we’re trying lots of new things, and they won’t always work out. Best to keep the spirits up—and remember more sunblock.

Oh! And there was some cool wildlife:

A Paris peacock butterfly (Papilio paris) collects nectar from a flower.
A groundskimmer (Diplacodes trivialis) rests on a leaf in the sun.


A soldier ant (unknown species) defends a line of foragers (from us).
A planthopper of the family Flatidae rests on my hand and nervously eyes the camera.

Dorrigo National Park: Waterfalls and Wildlife

Just south of the Queensland-New South Wales border, Dorrigo National Park is a green rainforest refuge, one part of World Heritage Site known as the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. The patches of rainforest here are all that remain of the thick rainforest that once blanketed Australia millions of years ago. Thick mists and rain nourish the forest, and the water flowing from the soil collects into streams that tumble from rocky cliffs. And uncleared by humans, these forests remain a refuge to thousands of species: microbes, plants, fungi, and animals. Just a brief stroll through the forest reveals a kaleidoscope of wildlife, carrying on just as it did when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

We visited Dorrigo National Park on a rainy day, raingear ready and cameras poised to capture what we saw. Sometimes we were surprised. Sometimes we weren’t fast enough. But here’s a sample of what we found in the 7 km loop from the Dorrigo Rainforest Center:

Peek: a tree that has fallen across the trail sports a family of fungi



This shy bug has pulled his eyestalks in and waits for me to leave.


A heavy vine winds around a tree and runs up into the canopy above


Little family: mushrooms of varying age and fray clustered together


Crystal Shower Falls, at one end of the Wonga Walking Track


The view from the carved crevice behind the falls, where water collects and forms mud


Eco-friendly graffiti: Hikers put their hands in the mud pools behind the falls and leave their prints on the wall.


A skink rests on a rock near the falls. Possibly an orange-speckled forest skink (Eulamprus luteilateralis)


Hiding out: more tiny mushrooms huddle in a woody crevice.


Red fruit hangs from a walking stick palm (Linospadix monostachyos)


Spot the leech in this picture. Leeches were all over the forest, and we had a few get onto us and suck blood.


Ascomycete fungi grow from a tree trunk.


A large bird (Australian brush turkey?) dashes off into the forest.


Tristania Falls, the second waterfall on this hike.


The water of Tristania Falls flows over the contours of an unusual rock formation

Explore Nature Around Quito with Mindo’s Waterfall Hike

An aerial view of the waterfall hike and surrounding forest from the gondola

The small mountain town of Mindo is a perfect getaway from the city of Quito. Located only 2 hours away, it boasts amazing hikes, a bird sanctuary, an orchid garden, and chocolate tours. For those of you looking for a nice half-day hike, look no further than Mindo’s Santuario de Cascadas, which leads you through tropical cloud forest to several beautiful waterfalls.

Getting There

There are two main ways of getting to Mindo: booking transportation with a tour, or taking the bus. In either case, prep for the trip by bringing hiking shoes (this hike is a real one so don’t just come in flip flops and then slip and fall to your death), a swimsuit, some food, and some cash.

Waiting to ride the gondola across the valley to the waterfall hike

The tour option: This is better if you want to do multiple activities in Mindo and you’re short on time, since it will work on your schedule. You can book a tour to at nearly any agency in Mindo, but I’d recommend Gabby Segova’s Ecuador Family Tours; we booked our Galapagos cruise through her and couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful person to help us.

The bus option:  The bus may not work for those on a tight schedule, but it’s cheaper ($3.10 as of December 2016) and great if you have a couple of days to spend exploring Mindo. There are a couple of bus lines that run to Mindo, but all but one drop you off outside of town and you have to flag a ride to finish the trip. Only the Flor de Valle line, which leaves from Terminal Ofelia, goes into Mindo itself. It departs Quito->Mindo and Mindo->Quito only a few times a day, so double check the schedule at Terminal Ofelia. For those of you planning a day trip to Mindo with the bus, the ride takes 2 hours; if you’re on the 8:00 am (first) bus out, you have 7 hours to explore Mindo before you have to catch the last bus out. Buy your ticket for the last bus in advance (i.e. when you first get into Mindo), because it can sell out.

It’s a 15-minute ride from the town to the entrance to Santuario de Cascadas. Pick-up trucks here double as taxis, so flag one and ask to go to “Tarabita y Santuario de Cascadas Mindo” or just “Cascadas del Mindo”. It’s not a cheap ride ($6.00 in 2016), so share it if you can.

The Hike

The hike is only accessible by gondola, which costs $5.00 a person to cross — that includes the trip back, so don’t worry about paying again when you return. At busy times you might find yourself waiting for 20-30 minutes for the gondola. The ride itself takes only a couple of minutes, and while the picture below might seem scary, this type of transport is fairly routine in mountainous parts of South America. If you’re afraid of heights then sit, don’t stand, and definitely don’t look down.

Riding the gondola

There are two hikes you can do from where the gondola drops you off: a 45-minute hike with one waterfall (left when facing the gondola building) and a 1-3 hour hike with six waterfalls (right when facing the gondola building). We chose the six-waterfall hike because we wanted a longer walk, so the rest of this post will focus on that hike.

Hikers make their way down the steep trail

The first part of the hike was a pretty steep downhill trail with semi-formed stairs that can get pretty slippery when wet. It was mostly packed earth when we visited, but workers along the trail were building new safety rails and steps, so it looks like either the locals or the park service is investing in improvements.

Workers lay rebar for a railing along the trail

The first five waterfallswere the most crowded so we hiked on through to the last waterfall and had our own private swimming pool. When another group finally caught up with us nearly an hour later, we packed up and worked our way backward, visiting each waterfall.

None of these falls are Niagra or Iguazu, but each has its own personality formed by the flow of the water around the rocks. For those completionists out there (like me), here’s a list of the waterfalls from closest to furthest from trail start:

Cascada Nimbillo


This is the busiest waterfall, with a dedicated (but somewhat run-down) changing area. We saw a lot several families swimming and playing near this waterfall.

Cascada Ondinas


A small waterfall that has a small wooden seat near the edge. The pool is shallow, so it’s better for having a picnic or relaxing than getting wet.

Cascada Guarumos


This waterfall had a fairly deep pool, but I don’t remember seeing anyone swim here. It’d be a great place to check out on the next trip.

Cascada Colibries


This shy waterfall is veiled by canyon walls, but if you wade upstream a bit you can get a great photo opportunity. It’s popular with visiting locals for photos, so you may have to wait for a few minutes to get your shot.

Cascada Madre


The penultimate waterfall is surprisingly busy for how far it is from the trailhead. It’s got several easily accessible and deep pools, so it’s popular for swimming and soaking in.

Cascada Azul


This waterfall is the least busy, since most people stop at Cascada Madre. Several pools around the area are deep enough to soak in, although there’s not much space to swim. We had this waterfall all to ourselves for an hour before other hikers showed up.

The Wildlife

I’m a biologist, I can’t help myself. Here here is some of the amazing wildlife we found on our hike:

A shield bug (Pentatomoidea) on a leaf.
Mushrooms grow from a woooden post along the trail
A caterpillar on a leaf
A longwing butterfly (Heliconius, probably H. melpomenes) drinks water from a concrete post along the trail.
Tiny white mushrooms grow in the leaf litter of the forest floor.

Heroes Around the World 2: Tinka Plese and AIUNAU

foto Tinka web
Tinka rehabilitating sloths at AIUNAU. (Photo Credit: Tinka Plese)

Internet fact: everybody loves sloths. They’re universally adored, with a conservation society, fanpages, infinite gifs, and the sloth-or-chocolate croissant meme. There’s even a wikiHow article on how to be a sloth lover. That’s a lot of sloth support, and I think these people are on to something. There’s something endearing about seeing their cute little faces, and so relaxing when watching them climb slowly through the trees. It’s like watching an animal at peace with the world.

Sloths still exist in the wild in Colombia, so we were excited at the chance to see them. But nature isn’t always cooperative and we hadn’t seen any on our hikes in the jungle. Though we still wanted to see sloths, I wasn’t keen on just going to the zoo–we could do that in the U.S. On a whim, I looked around for a wildlife sanctuary for sloths online. That’s how I found Tinka and AIUNAU, the nonprofit foundation she directs to help rehabilitate sloths, anteaters, and other wildlife. We reached out to Tinka about visiting AIUNAU and after a brief exchange of emails, one morning we traveled to rural Antioquia to visit her.

Men installing telephone lines near our bus stop in rural Antioquia. Increased development in rural areas is one of the many threats to sloths.

We met Tinka at a bus stop and she drove us to her home, which doubles as a site for AIUNAU’s rehabilitation facilities. She doesn’t normally do tours – as she puts it, her work is in helping the animals; she’s not here to run a tourist attraction. All the same, she was cheerful and more than happy to answer our questions. We had many, of course – what she does, how she founded AIUNAU, and what she sees in the future for the sloth species.

Tinka hadn’t intended to found AIUNAU when she arrived in Colombia 30 years ago. Originally from Croatia, she came to Colombia to study sloths as a doctoral student. The locals knew about her research, and soon people began bringing her injured sloths. At first Tinka cared for them informally, but after a decade she founded AIUNAU, a portmanteau of the local names for the two- and three-toed sloths. Through AIUNAU, Tinka and other members now not only rehabilitate Xenarthrans (the animal group comprising sloths, anteaters, and armadillos), but also advocate for policies that protect them.

A sloth peers out from its rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

Sloths face two major threats in Colombia, Tinka explained. The first comes from habitat loss, which increasingly brings sloths into contact with civilization. Sloths can be hit by cars when crossing roads, or electrocuted if they mistake a power line for a tree branch. And sometimes they’re just picked on by people – she’s received a few sloths injured by curious children who knocked them out of trees.  The second major threat springs, ironically, from the love that people have for sloths. Sloths are the most-trafficked animal in Colombia, with an estimated 60,000 sold as pets in 2013. Many of these sales are to tourists, who are told that sloths are easy to care for and will eat anything. To make matters worse, poachers will often target baby sloths, taking them from their mothers at a young age because their cuteness sells. Many sloths die this way, either abused at the hands of poachers or malnourished in a tourist’s house, far from their Colombian home.

A sloth rests on a branch in its rehabilitation enclosure. The enclosures, made of wood and plexiglass, measure several meters on each side and provide places for the animals to seek privacy.

Through AIUNAU, Tinka has successfully cared for over a thousand animals in the past 20 years, although not every story has a happy ending. Sloths often arrive at AIUNAU so weak or ill that they’re beyond recovery. Especially for young animals, she says, “often the best you can do is provide a peaceful place for them to die.” Many animals have also recovered under her care, though, and she then releases them into the wild. She emphasizes this strongly to us; in contrast with some other rehabilitation facilities, the animals are not kept as tourist attractions for revenue. Beyond rehabilitation, Tinka has also successfully advocated for better wildlife protection throughout Colombia. She tells us about writing letters to the Colombian Government’s Ministry of the Environment each year, highlighting places where sloth trafficking was prolific and demanding legal action. “I wrote to them for more than a decade, over and over, and finally they reached out to me and we addressed the issue,” she laughs, “finally.” She notes that because of government intervention, sloth trafficking has dropped, “but there’s still so much work to do.”

A tamandua in her rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

Tinka continues advocating for wildlife protection in spare moments between the daily rehabilitation of animals in her care. She monitors the poaching situation through local contacts and visitors who submit sightings of poachers selling sloths. She then works with law enforcement to shut poaching operations down. Beyond this, Tinka has also worked tirelessly to increase the number of animals being rehabilitated by sharing her knowledge on caring for them. She’s teamed up with engineers to create better tools for animal rehabilitation. “Take a look at this,” she beams, as she shows me a picture on her phone. “It’s a new rehabilitation enclosure we’ve invented that can be assembled and disassembled anywhere. It’s large enough to allow us to care for an animal on site and for an animal to recover in familiar surroundings, which should reduce their stress and lead to a faster recovery.” Amazingly, Tinka’s desire to help sloths has created new tools, ones that could be used to rehabilitate a wide range of animals and improve rehabilitation outcomes.

In bed early: a sloth sleeps in her blanket-covered basket at AIUNAU.

After more than two hours of talking to Tinka, we took a walk on the grounds to see the animals currently at AIUNAU. Tinka led us around the side of her house to four large enclosures. At the time, she was caring for three animals in these enclosures: two three-toed sloths and a tamandua (a species of anteater). As we approached the enclosures, Tinka spoke in a quiet whisper to avoid agitating the animals. “Because it’s overcast out, they may already be asleep.” We peered into the first enclosure and saw a small clawed hand hanging out from a blanket-covered basket. This sloth had turned in for the night. The sloth of the next enclosure hadn’t yet drifted off, but was clinging sleepily to the top of the branch in his enclosure. His head nodded slowly up and down, and watching him I felt a bout of somnolence creeping on.

A sloth prepares for sleep in his rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

The guest of the third enclosure, a tamandua, was far more active. On our approach, she rustled and climbed from the floor of her enclosure onto a shelf, and then gracefully reached over and pulled herself onto a branch. Within seconds she had reached the wall of the enclosure closest to us. “She’s excited because she senses us,” Tinka explained, “we shouldn’t stay too long.” After a few minutes of observation, we pulled ourselves away and walked with back to the house with Tinka. We chatted for a few more minutes, and then said our goodbyes. When I asked her what message she wants the world to know, Tinka says: “Don’t buy wild fauna, and don’t torture wild fauna. Let them be wild.”

A tamandua excitedly greets us from her enclosure.

As we walked back to the bus stop, we passed by fields and pastures that were once jungles inhabited by sloths and other Xenathrans. While sloths are not currently in danger of extinction, continued habitat loss and poaching pose serious threats. But these animals are lucky to have Tinka and AIUNA looking out for them. After all, many people love wild animals. But few have gone as far as Tinka in ensuring that they stay wild and free.


If you’re inspired by this story and want to help Tinka and AIUNAU continue their amazing work, consider making a donation here.

Homebound: all animals rehabilitated at AIUNAU are released into the wild.


Medellin’s Parque Arví

The gonodola leading to Medellín’s Parque Arvi.

Parque Arvi is Medellín’s largest park and part of its bid to become a national and international city of distinction. Comprising 16,000 total hectares, this reserve high above the Aburrá Valley encompasses more than 50 km of walking trails, 1,700 hectares of pristine forest, and several pre-Colombian archaeological sites.

A small mushroom grows among the moss on the forest floor.

The history of the park itself is hard to discern. The first reports of the area come from the Spanish Conquest, where conquistadors chronicled the discovery of crumbling buildings and “roads of chopped rock, wider than those of Cusco [Peru]” that they “dare not follow, for the people who made them must have been many”. The land sat untouched for 450 years, until in 1970 the Colombian government declared it the Río Nare National Park. Then in 2010, as part of a city-wide improvement program and a bid to triple the amount of park space accessible to the citizens of Medellín, the city completed a metro cable connecting the city’s train system with Parque Arvi. Since then, the park has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, both from Colombia and abroad.

A Metro employee guides people onto the gonodola.

A visit to Parque Arvi is much more than a chance to get some fresh air–it’s a chance to experience first-hand how much Medellín has changed in the past few decades. After repeated recommendations to visit, one sunny afternoon we caught the A line to Acevedo station and bought tickets for the gondola. As we glided over the rooftops of the hillside barrios, we could see people walking on the streets and children playing in the parks. Forty years ago, these neighborhoods were slums, cut off from the city proper and opportunities in the center of the valley.

Soaring over the hillside barrios

The infamous Pablo Escobar gave a voice to the people of these disconnected and disenfranchised areas, demanding services for them in his brief stint in Colombia’s House of Representatives. After his expulsion from politics, Escobar recruited people from the slums in the drug trade and armed them, calling them to rise up against the wealthier inhabitants of city. Medellín became one of the most dangerous cities on earth, with the highest per-person homicide rate in the world from 1990 to 1999. In the worst year, 1991, the homicide rate was 325 people per 100,000, which is equivalent to the murder of roughly 1 in every 300 people.

A person navigates the stairs in one of the hillside barrios

Depending on who you ask, Pablo Escobar was either neutralized or assassinated in 1993. From there, government intervention and the election of political outsider and mathematician Sergio Fajardo as mayor brought sweeping improvements to all citizens of Medellín. The metro infrastructure was one of these, enabling people from the hillside barrios to easily travel into the city and find opportunities. The story is wonderfully chronicled here by The Guardian, but the punchline is that Medellín’s homocide rate has dropped to one tenth of what it was in less than thirty years and the poverty rate has fallen below Colombia’s national average. And the city feels it. Everywhere we’ve been, people have greeted and welcomed us. As we rode up on the gondolas, we encountered a man who recounted how bad it used to be in the hillside barrios, and how much things have changed. “Our mayor,” he said in stilted English, “He had a saying – por los pobres, los mejores – for the poor, the best. The best educations, the best buildings, the best everything.”

The view of Medellin from the gondola to Parque Arvi.

After the first gondola ride, we transferred at Santo Domingo station to the gondola for Parque Arvi. We passed even higher, up through farmland, and finally we soared over forest and touched down at the Parque Arvi station. A market greeted us, full of food and handicrafts.

The market at the Parque Arvi station, selling food, jewelry, and souvenirs.

The target demographic here was clearly middle class; one stall sold vegetarian portabella burgers and another served up locally-brewed craft beer. The people shopping and milling around the station were clean and well-dressed, and the stray dogs and ambient Spanish were the only indicators of Colombia. After walking the market, we purchased tickets for guided walk around the park. Park rangers lead these 2-hour hikes several times a day, providing information on the history and wildlife of the area. While we waited for the walk to start, we struck up conversation with a man who had brought his family to the park for the day. He tells us that he’s finishing his master’s degree in education, and that while Medellín has improved vastly since the 1990’s, there are still many problems. Education for better-paying jobs can be hard to come by, he attests, and sometimes the jobs themselves are scarce. “Still”, he says cheerfully, “I’m the first person in my family to get a higher education.”

Our guide shows us flowers found along the trail.

Our guide arrived and we began the hike while she introduced the region’s climate and biology. She explained that the park encompassess multiple types of forest, and that many of the plants growing in these forests have commercial, culinary, or ornamental value. “However now we protect these forests, so we ask that you do not take or damage anything. And those people allowed to take things from the forest can only take things that do not harm the plant, such as seeds,” she says. I thought of what a subtle difference that was from the U.S., where removal of everything is banned in nearly every park. There, everything must be preserved with minimal human intervention. Here, faced with the reality that some people’s livelihoods depend on collecting from the park and that there may be no other jobs up here, Colombians have chosen a compromise.

A species of blueberry (mortiños) growing in the park. Colombia is home to dozens of species from the blueberry family, Ericaceae.

Still, the biodiversity is impressive and we see a lot in our two hours of walking. Our guide shows us various various species of trees, bushes, and orchids. She points out some wild-growing blueberries which look like no blueberry I’ve ever encountered because it’s a different species; Colombia has the highest number of blueberry species in the world.

Inhabitants of Parque Arvi. Instead of purchasing land outright, the government pays landowners to preserve forests and care for the land.

After more than an hour of hiking through thick jungle and forest, we enter a pastoral area where houses dot the hillside. We ask the guide whether we’re still in the park and she nods. When we ask about the people, she says that this is their land. “When we wanted to expand the park, we didn’t force people to sell the land,” she explains. “Instead, we paid people to care for it.” This lease system provides an incentive for landowners to preserve forest on their private lands.

Campers along the river in the park.

We arrive to the camping area at the bottom of the hill where the hike ends along the river. Here people can picnic or spend the night for the fee of a camper’s permit. Looking at the campers among the pine trees, it’s easy to mistake this for some part of the pacific northwest, maybe just south of Seattle or along the coast in northern California. The woman with red hair could even be an engineer for Google. This is Colombia, and she’s (probably) not. But the similarity is proof of how much Medellín has changed.

A hawk or sphinx moth rests on an outcrop of dirt.